To see the value of social media, watch what happened in Turkey when the local media failed

There’s been a lot written over the past few months about how unreliable social media can be when it comes to chaotic real-time news events like the Boston bombings, and how it perpetuates untruths and misinformation. But the flip-side of this equation becomes clear when you see what has been happening in Turkey this week, where the traditional media has either been asleep at the wheel or has deliberately avoided paying attention to large and ongoing demonstrations against the Turkish government.

Although it’s tempting to compare these events to the uprisings that took place during the so-called “Arab Spring,” sociologist Zeynep Tufekci — who also happens to be Turkish — has pointed out in a perceptive essay that what is happening in Istanbul is very different. For one thing, Turkey has a democratically elected government, and there has not been the same history of brutal repression as in Egypt and elsewhere. So this is not about the overthrow of a dictator.

Local media initially ignored the story

That said, however, there is enough popular dissatisfaction with the government of Prime Minister Erdogan that what began as a small and peaceful protest over the building of a shopping mall has turned into a series of mass demonstrations against the authorities — events that appear to be fuelled by a number of issues, including the government’s aggressive redevelopment policies and some festering historical animosity towards the ethnic Kurdish population.

And what have the local media — or even the local branches of international media — been doing since this all began weeks ago? Mostly ignoring the demonstrations and paying attention to other things, including a special broadcast report about penguins that CNN Turkey chose to air in the middle of one of the largest demonstrations, to the chagrin of many Turks. Other channels broadcast cooking shows and historical documentaries.

Among the reasons given for the lack of coverage are the fact that some of Turkey’s major news entities are sympathetic to the Islamic government of Prime Minister Erdogan, and also that these large media conglomerates have corporate parents who are beholden to the government because of their interests in other businesses like mining and energy. In frustration, some of those involved in the protests started a crowdfunding effort in order to buy a full-page ad in the New York Times, and raised more than their goal of $53,000 in less than 24 hours.

Social media filled the news vacuum

In response to this information vacuum, social media has become even more important as a source of news about what is happening and where. Hashtags on Twitter and Facebook groups and other tools — including private mobile-messaging services, since the Turkish government has reportedly been blocking some public internet services — have become a crucial way of getting information for many Turkish residents. Just as they did in Tahrir Square in Egypt, these tools have allowed those who are experiencing the news to report on it themselves.

So while social media and tools like Twitter were criticized for doing damage to people’s understanding of what was happening during the Boston bombings or Hurricane Sandy, because of the false information being circulated, those same tools have become a lifeline for many in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey because their local media is not doing its job properly.


In fact, Twitter became such a crucial tool for some of those in Turkey that the prime minister railed against the service, calling it “the worst menace to society.” And in a somewhat darker move — one that sounds a little more like Egypt or China than a democratic nation like Turkey — as many as two dozen protesters were detained by the Turkish authorities on Tuesday because they were accused of using Twitter to foment unrest, and charges could be laid.

Letting citizens know they aren’t alone

In her essay on the effect of social media on the way that information flows during such events (something she also wrote about while the Arab Spring was taking place ), Tufekci notes one crucial aspect of what Twitter and Facebook and other services do during such events: in a nutshell, they allow others to discover that they are not alone. The breaking down of this “pluralistic ignorance,” as Tufekci describes it — helped jump-start demonstrations in Egypt when decades of repression and poverty had been unable to do so.

“The key conceptual issue here is not digital versus non-digital but visibility, accessibility and signaling power. Street demonstrations, in that regard, are a form of social media in that they are powerful to the degree that they allow citizens to signal a plurality to their fellow citizens, and to help break pluralist ignorance. Overall, social media are altering mechanisms of collective action in societies and we have just begun to understand this fundamental shift.”

In the end, social media and networked systems of all kinds accomplished in Turkey what the traditional media is supposed to but didn’t: namely, informing Turks about what was happening in their country, and at the same time letting those involved know that their voices were being heard by the government. And that is the real power of networked media.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen